Poland Moves Closer to an Almost Total Ban on Abortion, Polish Left Reacts

By David Mills Published on April 4, 2016

With polls claiming that half the Polish people want the country’s restrictive abortion law liberalized, Polish pro-life groups have proposed to restrict abortion further, allowing abortions only to save the mother’s life. They need to gather 100,000 signatures to bring the proposal before Parliament, which is controlled by the conservative Law and Justice party.

The party returned to power last October, appealing to what Americans would call “family values” and attacking the pro-market parties then in power for policies it insisted were hurting families. It made clear its support for the Catholic Church.

The party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said in Poland “there is no value system that could realistically compete … with the teachings of the Church. If someone fights this system, then regardless of whether they are a believer or not, they favor nihilism.”

Kaczynski and Prime Minister Beata Szydlo are both devout Catholics who support the proposed policy, but if the bill comes before Parliament, party members will be able to vote as they wish, The Guardian reports. He is “convinced that a vast majority of the caucus, or perhaps all of it, will back the proposal.” The leader of the opposition has called for Parliament to maintain the current law, because raising the issue again would increase political conflict.

Poland’s Abortion History

Poland’s current law represents a reaction to the Communist government’s liberal abortion policy, which had been in effect for over three decades. According to a paper published by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the Communist government changed the law in 1956 to allow abortion for “difficult living conditions,” which became the most common reason for terminating pregnancies, and left the decision entirely to the mother. The country had previously only allowed abortions when the pregnancy endangered the life the mother or was the result of incest or rape.

In 1990 and then again in 1993, under the first government after the Communists fell from power, Poland restricted abortion significantly. Parliament, led by Solidarity hero Lech Walensa, removed “difficult living conditions” as a reason, shifting Poland from what The New York Times described as “one of Europe’s most permissive countries for abortions” to one of the strictest. “Henceforth,” the UN report explains,

abortions could be performed legally only in cases of serious threat to the life or health of the pregnant woman, as attested by two physicians, cases of rape or incest confirmed by a prosecutor, and cases in which prenatal tests, confirmed by two physicians, demonstrated that the foetus was seriously and irreversibly damaged. … The law also amended the abortion law to provide that “every human being shall have a natural right to life from the time of his conception.”

Doctors who performed illegal abortions could be jailed for up to two years. The translated text of the 1993 law can be found here.

The current law allows only an estimated 700 to 1800 abortions per year, according to the French press agency AFP, and only 200 according to Catholic News Service. AFP also claims, referring to “feminist groups,” that up to 150,000 Polish women get illegal abortions or get them in other countries. No reliable figures are available.

The new law proposed by the pro-life group Stop Abortion (text in Polish here) allows abortion only when the life of the mother is threatened. It extends the penalty for abortionists to 5 years.

The new law also requires the national and local governments “to provide material support and care for families with children affected by severe disability or disease threatening their lives, as well as the mothers and their children, where there is reasonable suspicion that the conception occurred as a result of a criminal act.” It calls for school curricula that includes the “knowledge of the principles of responsible parenthood and the values ​​of family and human life from conception to natural death.”

Catholic Support, Pro-Choice Opposition

Stop Abortion explains (text in Polish here) that they aim “to restore fully the human rights, with particular regard to the right to life, to the weakest people who can not defend themselves. At the same time, the project ensures equality before the law and the end of legal discrimination against people in the prenatal period of their development” — a position the group notes expresses the explicit claims of the Polish constitution and other documents.

The Church remains a power in Polish life. With slightly fewer than 40 percent of Poles attending Mass regularly (90 percent identify themselves as Catholic), it has the largest base of support of any institution in Poland. In a letter read at all Masses on Sunday, the Catholic bishops endorsed the effort to restrict abortions severely. “When it comes to the life of the unborn, we can’t remain at the current compromise set out in the [1993] law. We call on people of goodwill, believers and nonbelievers, to act so as to fully protect the life of the unborn from a legal point of view.”

Catholic teaching insists, as stated in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, that direct abortion is “gravely contrary to the moral law” and that “because it should be treated as a person from conception, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed like every other human being.”

The bishops further noted, “The life of every person is protected by the fifth of the Ten Commandments: thou shalt not kill. Therefore the position of Catholics in this regard is clear and unchanging.’’ They had previously threatened to ban from communion politicians who supported the recent expansion of access to in vitro fertilization.

Reactions to the possible restrictions have been harsh. A professor of law at the University of Warsaw and a leader of the Poland’s Woman’s Congress, Monika Płatek, said, “The bishops do not care if a woman dies” and called Prime Minister Szydło “a puppet.” Platek continued:

The abortion ban was the condition of the church’s support for Law & Justice. The move is typical of an arbitrary state that uses support for moral ideas to take total control. We saw it under Hitler and Ceaușescu and now we are seeing it under Law & Justice.

Pro-choice lobby Just For Women has arranged protests in 15 Polish cities, including a protest at the parliament building in Warsaw which drew “thousands,” Reuters reported. The protesters chanted “Keep your hands off the uterus” and “my body, my business” and held up coat-hangers. The Guardian story included a short video of people — all seated at the front — walking out of a church in protest.

In its official response to the proposed revision of the law, Just for Women declared: “The current law, misleadingly called a compromise, was passed in the early nineties to gain political support from the Catholic Church. … Once again, women will be denied basic rights to their bodies, pushed to seek dangerous methods to terminate unwanted pregnancies.” It claimed that women who suffered miscarriages might find themselves charged with murder and that if the bill passes, “The state will have the right to bypass a person’s constitutional rights [in order] to protect unborn children,” even though the constitution protects those children’s right to life.

 

The Polish debate “is expected to be closely followed by other EU states, including Hungary,” noted Vatican Radio. “Hungary’s new constitution, enacted in 2011, says that human life is protected from the moment of conception, which analysts believe could lead the way to further abortion restrictions.”

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